I think it’s only natural when you work in our field to consider how you might approach the other disciplines that fall within the massive umbrella of design. Sure, I design digital products – how would I design physical ones? Or the interior decor of a living space? Or a hand-made screen print?
The bullet item that I always come back to when considering this vast list of disciplines is game design.
I love games. Music heads listen to albums, attend live shows, and build up their vinyl collection. Instead, I’m tuned into The Giant Beastcast, playing indie titles on my Switch, and saving up for a new graphics card for my PC.
Game design is primarily a question of software. Hardware factors in too, but for the majority of devs, that’s more of a constraint within which their games are designed. I’ve observed that digital product design and game design share a number of key pitfalls.
This week, investigative journalist Jason Schreier at Kotaku published an in-depth exposé on the development of game studio BioWare’s latest release: Anthem. In February of this year, under publisher EA, BioWare’s brand new IP was released for Xbox One, PS4 and Windows PC.
BioWare is the studio behind Mass Effect. They are best known for immersive, character-driven stories in fantasy and sci-fi environments. After the disappointing soft reboot of their flagship series with 2016’s Mass Effect: Andromeda, anticipation for Anthem exponentially increased, but the game was widely panned by critics and BioWare fans alike upon its release.
In his piece, Schreier revealed a development process that was plagued by indecision, crunched deadlines, and technical difficulties. While reading this 11,000+ words that comprised this article, I was struck by the similarity of these issues to typical challenges faced by software design projects. These were far larger in scope, sure: Anthem was a triple-A game title after all, with a multi-million dollar budget and a development timeline of almost 7 years.
A number of the problems BioWare faced are the same ones which Agile software development methodologies like Kanban and Scrum aim to mitigate:
* long development timelines without access to meaningful user testing and feedback
* creeping project scopes and slipping milestones that stretch Gantt charts to their breaking point over years of investment
* unhelpful management practices from stakeholders with minimal domain expertise
If you’ve ever had a stringent release deadline like the ones experience in game development, you’ve experienced the same sort of crunch. I too have worked 12-hour days and late weekend nights to hit a launch deadline for a client’s trade show announcement, press release, or some other arbitrary milestone. For Anthem, publisher EA drew a line in the sand based on their fiscal year, mandating that the game be released in February 2019.
Many digital product teams mitigate the risk posed by huge releases by putting out a minimum-viable product. Following an initial release, user feedback helps drive the product roadmap and more meaningful functionality and features are added over time.
Some game studios are utilizing a variation on this strategy by releasing their games in “early access”: Unknown Worlds Entertainment saw success by taking this tack in the development of sandbox survival game Subnautica. First released on PC in December 2014, it didn’t see a “full release” build until three years later.
In my opinion, this approach is beautifully showcased in the crowd-funded serial documentary “Developing Hell” by Noclip, which is actively following the ongoing development of Supergiant Games’ newest title Hades. The video series is following an episodic release schedule, taking the same approach to documentary film-making as the studio is taking with their game.
While some titles have seen success with this strategy, do video games sacrifice something in an iterative release cycle that typical software doesn’t?
While “games as a service” like MMOs and MOBAs exist, the vast majority of video games have a limited life span with the average player. A gamer picks something up, plays it for between 1 – 20 hours, and puts it back down. The same can’t be said for say, Twitter, Uber, or Slack: these are applications a typical user interacts with regularly over the course of weeks, months, and years.
Another piece is the “WOW” factor that video game publicists crave: there’s a magic to hearing about a new game, picking it up on release day, and seeing the fandom and excitement spread like wildfire. In this sense, games have more in common with movies than typical software: they’re part of the zeitgeist, here and then gone.
To that effect, many game developers (often at the behest of their publishers) are trying to squeeze additional life – and revenue – out of games that are produced within years-long, crunch-heavy dev cycles. This has resulted in seasonal content releases (often free), expansion packs (for an added cost), and infinite cosmetic packs and loot boxes for purchase.
Whether or not this strategy of drip-fed revenue post $59.99 investment is working for the industry is largely up for debate. Publishers seem extremely reticent to raise the base price on games, despite the fact the cost hasn’t followed the pace of inflation since the 1990s.
The industry has seen widespread upheaval in the past six months: studios Telltale Games and Capcom Vancouver were shuttered in late 2018, and big layoff waves hit Activision Blizzard, ArenaNet, and Electronic Arts early this year.
With all this happening, one has to wonder whether studios and publishers have been forced to reconsider their business model. Perhaps these multi-million dollar investments over the span of years (that don’t receive any real critical feedback from the public until release) just aren’t working any longer.
Game developers and designers also aren’t tolerating the abysmal working conditions that have been the norm in the industry. In Schrier’s piece, he notes that many of Anthem’s developers took weeks and months away from work to cope with mental health and stress concerns. Game Workers Unite has emerged as a strong advocate for unionization, pressing the issue directly with industry members at the annual Game Developer’s Conference this past month.
All this to say: the status quo of game development largely isn’t working, for anyone. It’s failing developers, designers, executives, and gamers alike. Far be it for me to end this post with a specific recommendation: I don’t work in games, so I simply can’t say whether the tactics that have helped smooth software process could benefit games.
That said, if there’s something that games can learn from tech writ large, it’s to involve real people in providing critical feedback on your product, and to do so early. Designers and engineers are not gods. We can pretend we always know best because of our taste and training, but the truth is, we often don’t. If we can suck it up and get humble, the products we create are only the better for it.